Issue 20.3: June/July 2017

The Ice Shavers

Frozen dolphins, sea turtles and hula dancers were once a mainstay on Island buffet tables; today only a handful of artists carry on the practice of ice sculpting
Story by Brittany Lyte. Photos by Mallory Roe.

It’s a muggy night on Maui, but the dial thermometer inside Darren Ho’s modest, two-room warehouse in Kahului points to a cool seventy-one degrees Fahrenheit.

Dressed in boardshorts, knee-high rubber boots and a flimsy plastic apron, Ho emerges from a walk-in freezer wheeling a dolly loaded with a three-hundred-pound block of ice. He hoists the giant, homemade cube of frozen tap water onto a plywood crate and stands it upright so that it’s level with his throat. Then, wielding a chain saw, he makes the first cut.

“All I need is a picture,” Ho shouts over the racket of the chain saw between cuts. “If you want a giraffe, I need a picture of a giraffe. If you want kissing dolphins, I’ve done so many of those that I don’t need a drawing. And with this—I’ve done so many palm trees in my career that I can do this one from memory, too.”

One of Hawai‘i’s last remaining ice sculptors, Ho etches the cartoonish outline of a swaying palm tree into the ice block, sending brittle hailstones flying. Although rudimentary, the one-dimensional design will lead to a 3-D sculpture that will endure several hours under a punishing Hawai‘i sun without dissolving into an unidentifiable, drippy mound. “There’s nothing worse than going to a function and having someone say, ‘What is that supposed to be?’” Ho says.

Ice sculpting is a dying art in Hawai‘i, where everything from the weather to the skyrocketing cost of ice blocks threatens to thwart a pursuit so unlikely that it evokes comparison to the Jamaican bobsled team. But ice carving in the Islands isn’t dead yet. Indeed, Hawai‘i has its own champion carving team, which won third place this year in the annual International Snow Sculpture Contest at the Sapporo Snow Festival in Japan. “People ask us how we practice in Hawai‘i,” says Dale Radomski, a hotel chef and proud member of Hawai‘i’s three-man snow carving team. “We like to joke with them that we practice with sand.”

Popularized during the tourism boom that followed Hawai‘i’s admission to the Union in 1959, ice carving was once a banquet room standard at hotels. Chefs sought to wow visitors not only with exquisite food but also with decadent displays of ice-carved angelfish, Chinese dragons, swaying palm trees and kissing dolphins. In more recent decades, the demand for ice sculpture has fallen as the going rate for a block of ice climbed from less than $20 in the 1990s to upward of $100 today. This is especially onerous when you consider that the average sculpture requires three or four blocks of ice. “Some people just can’t see a block of ice melt away without thinking of money going down the drain,” says Wally Nishihara, a chef at the Hilton Garden Inn Kauai at Wailua Bay and a forty-year veteran ice sculptor. At one time Nishihara routinely flexed his ice-carving muscles, but these days his short-lived creations are rarely seen in the hotel dining room. “We did a party about six months ago, and I did two lovebirds perched on a heart,” Nishihara says. “You’ll notice I said six months ago.”

Frank Gonzales, program manager of the continuing education culinary arts curriculum at Kapi‘olani Community College on O‘ahu, says the college discontinued its ice-sculpting class about ten years ago because it had become too expensive to provide a classroom of culinary students with ice blocks. As training opportunities have grown scarce, many major hotels in Hawai‘i no longer have anyone in the kitchen who knows how to sculpt ice, Gonzales says.

“Ice sculpting is a holdover from the ’60s and ’70s, prior to when Hawai‘i Regional Cuisine really took hold and when a lot of the major chefs in the Hawai‘i hotels were still European,” Gonzales says.“At that time the chefs were French and they were German, and they brought over a lot of the old-school, old-country traditions with them. They did petits fours and they did chocolate fountains and they did sugar flowers and they did ice sculptures. These were flourishes that were impressive, but they are flourishes that are getting left behind. It’s very old-fashioned, so it’s considered sort of passé, and it’s now become very expensive. It’s a wonderful art, but it’s no longer a cheap amenity.”

Once a staple at birthday celebrations and buffet tables, ice sculpture today is a premium product found mainly at high-end weddings and corporate retreats. Still, the annual International Ice Sculpting Exhibition and Competition at Lahaina Cannery Mall on Maui endures, and it remains popular with spectators. But while the event used to draw anywhere from thirteen to fifteen ice sculptors from Hawai‘i and Japan, participation has dwindled. Last year just five competitors turned out, and only three were from Hawai‘i. “People are giving up on it,” says Kazuo Yamanoue, the event’s organizer.

Once a dedicated ice carver himself, Yamanoue is among those who have given up the practice. “I retired and donated all my equipment, my chain saw, my chisels, everything,” he says. “We used to have an ice-sculpting association in Hawai‘i. I was the president. But it got to the point where sometimes I would go to a meeting and no one else would show up.”

Despite the frosty outlook, there is still a handful of diehard ice sculptors in Hawai‘i who refuse to lay down their chainsaws. Ho is one of them. He estimates that in the last thirty years he has carved more than five thousand ice sculptures, ranging from a life-size Harley-Davidson to an elaborate dolphin-shaped fountain that spat a stream of fruit punch from its mouth. “I used to do some really fun, creative things,” Ho says. “I once carved thirty blocks of all sorts of tropical animals and things for a forty-five-minute reception. It took me three weeks! Three weeks and it was all over in less than an hour. Today nobody’s spending money like that.”

Rising energy costs combined with changes in taste have undercut the popularity of ice carving in the Islands. Yet Ho still finds enough work to keep busy. He cuts costs by producing his own three-hundred-pound blocks of ice.

Corporate logos are the big thing nowadays. Ninety percent of Ho’s current business consists of logos commissioned by international insurance, pharmaceutical and tech companies holding corporate retreats in Hawai‘i. “I rarely do a ten-year-old’s birthday party anymore,” he says. “Not after I tell them how much it’s going to cost.”

While ice sculptors in places like Alaska and Russia are accustomed to working with mammoth blocks of crystal-clear ice cut from frozen rivers, Hawai‘i’s carvers are ice-block-impoverished underdogs struggling against the odds to practice their art. And yet in 2017, after a dozen years of falling short, Team Hawai‘i won bronze at Sapporo Snow Festival.

Suited in snow pants and ski jackets, the trio of local chefs arrived at the wintry city square that serves as Japan’s world-famous competition grounds and sized up their blank canvas: a ten-foot cube of densely packed snow, excavated from the mountains just outside Sapporo and as white as cotton. Armed with scaffolding, ladders and a small arsenal of homemade hand tools, Team Hawai‘i turned its block into a work of art over the course of four back-to-back twelve-hour days. Sculpting snow is different from sculpting ice. Snow is much softer and more malleable. It’s also more prone to cave in from a carving mistake. Because a chain saw could obliterate the snowpack, power tools are forbidden at the International Snow Sculpture Contest. Instead, Team Hawai‘i used sharpened shovels to make bold cuts and ice fishing augers to make precision cuts. Cheese graters added texture and the illusion of movement. Sandpaper helped smooth out the snow.

Examples of Ho’s sculptures include the life-size motorcycle seen in the preceding photo, as well as the turtle and the tropical-themed martini ice bar seen here.

Team members Radomski and Norimitsu Wada-Goode of the Royal Hawaiian hotel in Waikīkī and Charlie Matsuda of the St. Regis Princeville Resort on Kaua‘i had participated in the festival for more than a decade without winning a medal. Over the years, however, they learned a thing or two about what kind of sculpture appeals the most to the judges. As Radomski recalls: “We had done surfing geckos. One year it was a hula dancer with an owl on her arm. We did a pig hunter one year. We did dolphins. We did turtles.” None of these wowed the judges. “The judges have seen a dolphin a thousand times, so this year we decided to do something a little more contemporary and abstract.” Thus was born “Dancing in the Clouds, Hawaiian Style,” a cutout of a classic Hawaiian hula girl fringed by an ethereal pair of modern hula dancers, their skirts and limbs were so expertly shaped and textured they appeared to be frozen in motion.

“It was clean and it was simple,” Radomski says. “Like a diamond, you don’t want to be making a lot of intricate cuts. You want it to be simple so that when the light hits it right, it just shines. We didn’t want to be adding ten thousand little details. We wanted it to look like when you’re looking up at the sky and you start to see shapes in the clouds, and you can make them out but they aren’t really clear—maybe you see one thing, and I see something else.” The work won Team Hawai‘i a bronze medal and a trip to the podium, where they stood beside teams from snowy Latvia (silver) and Macau (gold).

Back in Kahului, Ho maneuvers his chain saw with the precision of an orchestra conductor wielding a baton. With each slash of the roaring saw and every scrape of the die grinder, his icy palm tree, a commission for a corporate client, morphs from a one-dimensional etching into a 3-D emblem of tropical paradise. Finally, he saws the sculpture in half, splitting the glistening tree into an identical set of tabletop palms. He loads them onto the dolly and rolls them into the freezer, where they will remain in storage until the date of a corporate event at the Grand Wailea.

Ho, whose fee for a one-block carving has soared from $175 in the 1990s to more than $800 today, is the only person in Hawai‘i making a full-time living from ice sculpting. After three decades of making art from ice, he is eager to retire, but he fears the art of ice carving in Hawai‘i could die off without him unless he finds a protégé to take over his four-hundred-sculpture-a-year business.

The closest Ho’s come to finding a replacement is an eighth-grade girl from Maui. He had the girl practice on Styrofoam first. Then he trained her with a chain saw and ice. After a short series of lessons, the young student successfully carved a leaf from a block of ice all on her own. The feat surprised the student but not the teacher. Anyone can learn to carve an ice sculpture, Ho insists. A passion to learn is the only requirement. “Everyone calls me an artist, but it’s really so simple,” he says. “If I carved these palm trees out of wood, people would think it’s boring. But because it’s ice, everyone thinks it’s supercool.” HH